Overcoming Adversity: 5 Science-Backed Resilience Strategies

November 23, 2021

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and adapt to difficult or challenging circumstances. 

Just like emotional intelligence, resilience is a trait that can be developed and strengthened over time — but doing so requires effort, dedication, and consistency. Think about it as a muscle in your mind: the more you work it, the stronger it becomes.

How to Develop Resilience?

You’re a unique individual, which means developing your own resilience will be a personal journey that requires deliberate practice and self-awareness. 

You can build resilience by finding activities that work for you and setting yourself up for small, incremental “wins” that reinforce positive thoughts and behaviour. 

That’s why we’re sharing these science-based exercises to help you deal with difficult circumstances and to improve your own resilience. 

Science-Based Resilience Building Strategies

1. Storytelling

One of the challenges of overcoming a difficult period is our tendency to “stew” or re-play the same story in our head over and over again, which isn’t always helpful or productive. 

A study from Pennebaker et al. (1988) found that individuals who engaged in therapeutic writing experienced more wellbeing and happiness (aka, resilience) months later.

By telling a healthier story, we can increase our sense of control and re-frame how we interpret events. Think about an example in your own life where you continue to repeat a story that causes you to feel upset, worried, or anxious. Now, try writing out a new, more positive story.

As you do, pay attention to how you feel during the process and allow yourself to reflect on how the process of re-framing the story makes you feel.

2. Purpose Exercises

Finding meaning in our environment is an important aspect of resilience. Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, states in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning:”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of his human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one’s way.” 

Psychologists have shown that people with a strong sense of purpose are more resilient, have a stronger sense of wellbeing, and experience better cognitive functions. Patricia Doyle, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist with the Alzheimer Disease Centre states:

“Purpose somehow gives your brain resilience. It makes your brain stronger and more resistant to the effects of diseases like Alzheimers.”

Other studies have shown that having a strong purpose can be a predictor of health and longevity, with recent research showing that finding meaning in life’s experiences, especially when facing challenges, is a key characteristic of resilience. 

If you’re not sure how to identify your purpose, try this questionnaire from Richard Leider:

  1. Who are you?
  2. Why do you get up in the morning?
  3. What keeps you awake at night?
  4. When are you most alive?
  5. What does being successful mean to you?
  6. How might you apply your gifts to a pursuit that is of deep interest to you and helps others?
  7. What can you do today to make a difference in one person’s life?
  8. What is your sentence (meaning, if you summarized your purpose in one 140 character sentence, what would it be)?
  9. If you say yes to living purposefully, what do you say no to?
  10. If you met an older version of yourself, what sage advice would they give you?

Ready to start developing your resilience? Sign up for our self-paced resilience program now.

3. Strengths and Gifts

Research has shown that identifying and leveraging your strengths enhances your resilience. A study led by Sherry Hamby found that adopting a strengths-based approach had significant positive benefits to people recovering from trauma.

To implement a strengths-based approach to developing resilience in your own life, try focusing on your talents and strengths and how you can make a difference using them.

If you’re not sure what your strengths are, try these suggestions:

  • Ask five people you trust to send you a list of what they think are your top strengths.
  • Take this free survey to identify your key character traits.
  • Invest in developing your emotional intelligence to learn how to apply your strengths in positive ways.

4. Three Good Things

Positive emotions can help you stay focused and present in the moment, and increase your attention to your surroundings. Barbara Frederickson, Ph.D., author of Positivity states:

“In our research program, we found that the daily repertoire of emotions of people who are highly resilient is remarkably different from those who are not.”

To practice positivity every day, try these exercises:

  • End your day by reflecting on and writing down three good things that happened today.

  • Be intentional about your reflections; note what you thought, the specific emotions you experienced, and the best thing about the experience.

5. Design a Flow

“Flow” is a term used by researchers to describe optimal states of consciousness, when we experience total absorption in an activity. 

Research has shown that getting into a state of flow can have a positive impact on our resilience since it engages our attention in a positive way and leaves us with a sense of accomplishment.

If you struggle to find ways to create flow in your daily life, consider identifying something you can do that meets these criteria:

  • A task that requires your full concentration
  • Involves intense focus
  • Is goal-directed
  • Feels challenging yet effortless
  • Gives you a feeling of control
  • Causes you to lose track of time

Science-Backed Resilience Strategies: Conclusion

By practicing the science-backed strategies we outlined above you can build your resilience and become a stronger, more balanced version of yourself. You’ll be able to persevere through adversity, frame challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, and become a happier and more fulfilled person overall.

However, while we can all agree that building our resilience is important, it can feel overwhelming to know where to start. To help set you on the right path, we suggest our self-directed Learn to be Resilient program